Point Reyes cattle ranches gain national historic status

The windswept hills of Point Reyes became an agricultural powerhouse after the Gold Rush, supplying butter to a booming San Francisco.|

Ranchlands at Point Reyes National Seashore in West Marin County, where cattle have thrived on grassy, fog-shrouded hills since the mid-19th century, now are nationally certified historic places, a designation that blends California’s early times with current modern controversy.

Two areas totaling more than 36,000 acres on the Point Reyes Peninsula and the adjacent Olema Valley encompass the original 36 ranches that were on the land in the mid-1850s, at the same time Julio Carrillo and others were plotting the streets of the frontier city of Santa Rosa.

Point Reyes, once described as a “cow heaven,” became an agricultural powerhouse in the post-Gold Rush era, supplying butter to a booming San Francisco, and now is a leading producer of organic milk and grass-fed beef.

Today, there are 13 active ranches at the north end of the national seashore and eight more ranches, mostly beef cattle operations, in the Olema Valley on the other side of Highway 1.

There are more than 150 old homes, barns, creameries, carriage sheds and other structures on the rolling, windswept land, many in sore need of repair, and all now recognized as testaments to history at the same time their future is clouded.

The 71,000-acre seashore, a popular visitor destination, also includes historic buildings that were involved in early 20th-century communications technology and a lifeboat station and lighthouse.

The 22,237-acre Point Reyes Peninsula Dairy Ranches Historic District and the 14,127-acre Olema Valley Dairy Ranches Historic District are now on the National Register of Historic Places, which names more than ?94,000 U.S. buildings, sites, objects and districts deemed worthy of preservation.

The two dairy districts join seven other seashore sites on the national register, including the iconic Point Reyes Lighthouse, built in 1870 on a rocky promontory jutting 10 miles into the Pacific Ocean, and the humble Tocaloma Bridge, built in 1927 over a creek east of Olema and now relegated to part of a bike path but still endowed with a gracefully curved concrete structure like only one other bridge in California.

Cicely Muldoon, the park superintendent, said she welcomed the national historic certification additions.

“National parks are so much more than sweeping landscapes. They are keepers of our national heritage, both natural and cultural,” she said. “Collectively, national parks tell the story of the country by preserving its history.”

To make the historic register, a site must have local or regional historical, architectural or archaeological significance as well as “sufficient integrity” to demonstrate its value, said Paul Engel, the seashore’s archaeologist.

With significance rising to a national level, a place can qualify as a National Historic Landmark, and the seashore boasts two: Point Reyes Lifeboat Rescue Station, built in 1927, and the 5,965-acre Drakes Bay Historic and Archaeological District, named to the elite list in 2012 as the site of the “earliest documented” contact between Europeans and California Indians.

Those who insist the expansive bay, lined by white cliffs, also was Sir Francis Drake’s landing site in 1579 took the designation as acceptance of their premise, even if the U.S. National Park Service did not officially endorse it.

But the beef and dairy ranchers of Point Reyes and Olema Valley remain on tenterhooks over an unresolved issue facing the federal agency.

When former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar evicted a commercial oyster farm from Drakes Estero in 2012, he also ordered the National Park Service to grant the cattle ranchers 20-year permits. That process was interrupted five years later by a federal court-approved settlement of a lawsuit filed by three environmental groups alleging the ranches were harming the landscape.

The settlement required consideration of a no-ranching alternative in a revised ranch management plan for the seashore, which also includes several options for continued ranching.

In September, the long-running saga took another turn when a bill by U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, was unanimously approved by the House of Representatives. Joining Huffman, a former environmental attorney, as co-sponsor was Rep. Rob Bishop, a conservative Utah Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee.

Huffman hopes the noncontroversial measure can win Senate approval during a lame-duck legislative session in December.

If it passes then, or in the new Congress next year, the park service would be required to extend 20-year permits to the ranchers, who are tenants on federally owned land. Ranchers whose families have been on the land for generations say they need long-term permits to justify investment in their operations.

Huffman hailed the ranchlands’ designation as a historic place.

“I think it is going to reaffirm the sense that preserving the agricultural heritage of the Point Reyes Seashore has always been part of the uniqueness of this park unit,” he said. If the ranches ceased operation, he said, “you would lose the working landscapes, the essential character of the place.”

The national historic designation probably won’t help pass his bill, but it will “provide stronger footing for where the park service is heading” with the management plan, Huffman said.

Laura Watt, a Sonoma State University professor who has studied Point Reyes for 20 years, said the historic places listing was long overdue, noting the ranch districts had been determined to be eligible two decades ago.

The designation is important because it obliges land managers - in this case the park service - to maintain a “sense of integrity” for the property as a whole, including structures, vegetation and “most importantly the land use itself,” Watt said.

Engel, the archaeologist, said some of the ranches were established more than 150 years ago and are “one of the defining characteristics of the Point Reyes and Olema Valley area.”

The seashore staff, along with a consultant, worked to obtain national register listing for six sites this year, including the ranch districts.

The other four are the RCA Point Reyes Receiving Station, Point Reyes Naval Radio Compass Station, Marconi RCA Bolinas Transmitting Station and the Tocaloma Bridge.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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